In Search of the "Real" Iran









Reinventing Khomeini offers a fresh interpretation of the ideological battles that paved the way for Mohammad Khatami and the struggle for political reform in Iran. These battles did not result from a sudden shift in the ideological climate, nor did the reform movement completely defy the ideology of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Rather, this movement can be traced to the revolution itself, and to the multiple agendas or "dissonant" vision of authority espoused by its leaders. Indeed, the revolution's founding father - Ayatollah Khomeini - was the unwitting author of today's struggles. A far more complicated figure than conventional depictions suggest, Khomeini never advocated a coherent ideology. Instead, he sought to mesh a Shi'ite vision of clerical rule under one "Supreme Leader" with an implicitly Western notion of mass participatory politics. While Khomeini's charisma obscured such tensions, his death in 1989 sparked a battle within the ruling elite to redefine his legacy. Reinventing Khomeini brings this contest to life by illustrating how Islamic Leftists" tried to push Khomeini's legacy in a democratic direction. This campaign provoked a fierce counter-attack from the clerical establishment. Determined to suppress the West's "cultural onslaught," the conservative clergy initiated a campaign of repression against the Left. Persecuted by the very state they had once defended, disillusioned revolutionaries such as Mohammad Khatami and Abdolkarim Soroush now argued that the only way to recapture the loyalty of Iran's alienated youth was to get the state out of the business of imposing religious dogma or vilifying the West. By embracing this pluralistic message, Iran's youth made Khatami's May 1997 election victory possible. Still, Reinventing Khomeini offers a cautionary view of the future. Arguing against the widely held view that the reform movement will either collapse in failure or prevail in a wave of democracy, this study suggests that competing notions of authority will continue to define the ideological terrain. Caught in a web of contradictions that they helped to spin, Iran's new democrats will have to accommodate -- and perhaps subordinate -- their quest for freedom and tolerance to the demands of clerical rule.


Table of Contents


  • Introduction: In Search of the "Real" Iran
  • Chapter One: Re-mapping Charisma
  • Chapter Two: Ascetic Mysticism and the Roots of Khomeini's Charisma
  • Chapter Three: Absorbing the Multiple Imaginations of the Islamic Left:
    From Shariati to Khomeini
  • Chapter Four: The Rule of the Jurist: Genesis of a Revolutionary Doctrine
  • Chapter Five: Dissonant Institutionalization: The Imam in Power
  • Chapter Six: The Trials and Tribulations of Complex Routinization
  • Chapter Seven: Children (and One Father) of the Revolution
  • Chapter Eight: Disenchantment, Charisma and...Reform?
  • Conclusion: Fear and Joy
  • Note: Each of the following excerpts are taken from the introductions of the above chapters.


Introduction: In Search of the "Real" Iran

That many academics, journalists and policy makers were also surprised by President Khatami's May 1997 electoral victory and by the ensuing struggle over Khomeini's revolutionary legacy is understandable. After all, it was difficult to square these events with either of the two dominant theories of charismatic revolution. On one level, Khomeini may be the 20th century's last example of a "pure" charismatic leader. His authority was born of a profound and genuinely felt crisis of identity. Khomeini sought to remedy this disenchantment through a revolutionary cris de coeur that was hostile to all forms of economic activity and political organization. When he reminded Iranians that the purpose of the revolution was not "to have less expensive melons," he affirmed the irrational if understandable aspiration for collective dignity that inspired the revolution.

Yet if his charisma radiated a spiritual logic that could not be reduced to a vulgar struggle for power or wealth, his quest to give his people a new identity was also animated by a rational approach to politics and religion. Khomeini articulated a utilitarian instrumentalism that viewed religion as a provided a useful tool for attaining collective political and social ends. Echoing the Third World ideologues of his day, he not only held that Islam was a "total ideology;" but also insisted that this ideology could be represented by an elected Majles that articulated the "interests" of the Iranian people. Which then, was the real Khomeini? And more important, which was the real Iran? Was the Islamic revolution an irrational quest for utopia? Or was it about creating institutions that could address the social and political interests of Iranians?

This book seeks to answer these difficult questions. Tracing the genesis and transformation of what I call a system of contending authorities, it will show how Khomeini's own efforts to accommodate competing visions of political community set the stage for an ideological struggle over his legacy in the nineties. Spurning all notions of linear development, particularly those that posit a neat path from revolutionary charisma to stable authority structures, I invite the reader to understand how a system that strove to accommodate notions of rationality and constitutional rule to the imperatives of charismatic rule and clerical traditionalism, encouraged change while limiting its ideological and political scope.

Beyond telling this particular story, this book offers a broader lesson that should interest social scientists seeking new insights into the dynamics of ideological change in authoritarian systems. Bridging the gap between the study of culture and political ideas on the one side, and historical institutionalist analysis on the other, it offers a sobering reminder that the images of authority that political actors bring to social and political conflicts are not mere rationalizations of material interests one side, or reflections of some cultural essence on the other. Viewed as integral elements of a state and the ideological legacies it bequeaths, these institutionalized images constitute decisive forces that can broaden or quickly limit the space for political and ideological change

Chapter One: Remapping Charisma

The notion that modern societies are beset by institutional and symbolic contradictions is hardly new. From Karl Marx to Karl Deutsch, this theme has informed nearly all of western social science. What is new is the decidedly post-modern sensibility which some scholars have brought to this subject. Eschewing all linear conceptions of social change, Friedland and Alford argue that western political systems are constituted by multiple and equally compelling "logics"...each of which... has an institutional and symbolic foundation, and coexists in tension with the others...Since each..."has places it cannot see, territory it cannot map," they invite us to design new conceptual maps that highlight ..."contradictory institutional systems." This book takes up that challenge, but with respect to a land far different from the world that Friedland and Alford have in mind.

Consider the following by Ervan Abrahamian:

The slippery label fundamentalism has been thrown at Khomeini so often that it has stuck...Khomeinism, in contrast, is...concerned with sociopolitical issues... [Populist movements] use charismatic figures and symbols...that have potent value in the mass culture [to attack] the status quo...[while]... stopping short of threatening the petty bourgeoisie and... private property.

Abrahamian's approach, which I refer to as "structural instrumentalism," does not deny the importance of identity or culture or even irrational forces. But it adheres to the cannon of instrumentalist analysis by arguing that cultural symbols were used by elites, who constructed a charismatic ideology to conceal the conflicting interests of a heterogenous ruling coalition...Now consider, by contrast, this citation from Hamid Dabashi:

There is the innate...human need for permanent re-enchantment...What would be the direction of "creative effervescence" other than towards a constant....upgrading of the most essential symbolics of religious culture...The cult of Khomeini feeds on fertile Persian imagination beyond the finality of the revolutionary sage.

Dabashi's evaluation is informed by an approach that I call "symbolic utopianism." According to this school, political communities, states or systems are welded together by culturally resonant symbols or rituals that explain an otherwise meaningless existence. When these symbols lose their appeal, both masses and leaders break with the routines of everyday life by plunging into transcendent rituals, symbols and experiences that express society's communal vitality. These experiences may be reawakened or personified by a charismatic leader, whose genuine belief in his divinity, coupled with his struggle to reaffirm that divinity through bold acts and utopian ideas, "re-enchants" the soul of society, thus paving the way for a new legitimacy structure.

Such dichotomous views of Iran's revolution-mass irrationality expressed through culturally "authentic" transrational rituals, or elite use of symbols for rational purposes-suggest how far we are from "mapping" the kinds of contradictions about which Friedland and Alford have written... As a result, our understanding of Iran's revolution suffers from two shortcomings. First, we do not sufficiently appreciate its most enduring trait, which is the twin valorization of a zealous quest for utopia alongside the pragmatic struggle for political order. Second, as Michael Fischer has observed, we cannot fully grasp the "dynamic instabilities" that have ensued from this wedding of what I call "contending authorities."

The following map of contending authorities connects the four conceptual guideposts that I believe distinguish charismatic leaders and ideologies in our postmodern age: (1) multiple biographies; (2) the layering of multiple, imagined worlds; (3) dissonant institutionalization; (4) complex routinization.

Chapter Two: Ascetic Mysticism and the Roots of Khomeini's Charisma

This chapter traces the cultural, political, social and psychological forces that gave birth to Khomeini's charismatic authority. Highlighting his early exposure to personal asceticism and Islamic mysticism, it argues that these two traditions articulated Khomeini's profound disillusionment with everyday existence after experiencing various injustices and indignities. The resulting charismatic sensibility -his ceaseless desire to directly experience what the Koran refers to as the "Light of the Heavens"-remained with Khomeini throughout his life, illuminating a path that took him from his career as a teacher to his position as Imam ...of the first and only successful charismatic revolution the modern Islamic world has ever experienced.

On the face of it, this classic tale of charismatic leadership fully accords with conventional accounts of Khomeini's biography in general, and his personal charisma in particular. One way or another, these biographies portray Khomeini as a revolutionary zealot...This thesis is amplified in biographies published by both his allies and his detractors, in which Khomeini is portrayed as a charismatic ideologue who from a young age was determined to follow a revolutionary path. How do such messianic portrayals fit into a study whose purpose is to portray the phenomenon of multiple biographies?

The answer is that these accounts... do capture one essential feature of Khomeini's biography. However, they err by implicitly endorsing a basic assumption of symbolic theory, namely that the irrational pull of pure charisma cannot coexist with other forms of authority such as raison d'état. The concept of multiple biographies argues that such accommodation is not only possible but likely - particularly where the formative experiences of youth imbue a leader with a powerful capacity for feeling and expressing charisma. Thus "stamped," the charismatic impulse can endure for a lifetime, pulling a leader in one direction as other ideals push him along opposing paths. Even the most non-linear history of charismatic leadership can have a point of inception, a point of origination that bears scrutiny. To analyze this point we must identify those forces which give birth to the charismatic impulse.

Chapter Three: Absorbing the Multiple Imaginations of the Islamic Left: From Shari'ati to Khomeini

Hannah Arendt long ago held that the authority of charismatic revolutionaries derives from the irrational way they make the world appear coherent: "Totalitarian movements," she wrote, "conjure up a lying world of which...uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks [of]... real life."...From his seat in Qom's Feyziyeh Seminary, Khomeini articulated this need for wholeness...This chapter explores Khomeini's assimilation of a very different view of authority. Subordinating the first principles of religion to the mundane goal of creating and maintaining power, this pragmatic ethos envisioned Islam as a useful tool for politically unifying Muslims. Placing Islam in the service of the Muslim community's temporal needs, it suggested that the "truths" of Islam were to be determined by changing social and political interests, rather than by the timeless religious verities.

Following the conceptual framework set out in Chapter One, my analysis of Khomeini's absorption of utilitarian Islamism transcends instrumentalist and symbolic accounts of charisma. Symbolic theorists acknowledge that the rationalization of religion sets the stage for the emergence of pure charisma. But they would insist that this process unfolds sequentially. Thus Dabashi argues that the instrumentalization of Islam by intellectuals such as Jalal Al-e Ahmad and 'Ali Shari'ati constituted a vital but distinct phase in a dialectic of alienation whose ultimate realization could only be realized by a charismatic clerical elite... In Dabashi's view, Shari'ati prophesied "a universal revolt of the glorified masses" that Khomeini fulfilled "almost unknowingly." Structural instrumentalists dismiss this sociology of unintended consequences. Abrahamian argues that Khomeini and his clerical allies appropriated the revolutionary ideology of the Islamic Left to rationalize a pre-conceived economic project.

Both accounts rest on the erroneous premise that the actions of charismatic leaders are based on one dominant concept of authority. This chapter suggests a different dynamic, one through which Khomeini and his allies accommodated an instrumentalist ethos to the transrational logic of charisma. To probe this dynamic, I highlight the secondary process through which Khomeini absorbed the "multiple imaginations" of the Islamic Left. This process was filled with paradoxes. Despite the nativist tone of their rhetoric, Islamist Leftists championed an essentially Western political vision. Moreover, although they did so in absolutist terms, they were au fond the transmitters of a relativist notion of religion. Khomeini decried such instrumentalism, insisting that Islam was not about economics. But he could not help absorbing the core message of the Islamic Left, namely that religious truths are made - and unmade- by people and for people.

Chapter Four: The Rule of the Jurist: Genesis of a Revolutionary Doctrine

Having explored Khomeini's assimilation of multiple images of authority, we must now consider how this dynamic helped produce the very doctrine for which he and his revolution stood: velayat-i faqih, or "Rule of the Jurist." We shall see that while this doctrine was largely an ideological innovation, its novelty derived not merely from the idea of one ruling faqih, but also from its eclectic intellectual foundations. Drawing on traditional, charismatic, and utilitarian themes, Khomeini created a vision of Islamic rule was influenced by his own multiple biography. After spelling out this argument, this chapter will review the social, cultural and political conditions that set the stage for Khomeini's emergence as "Imam" in 1979. My object here is to highlight the striking way in which the "Rule of the Jurist" anticipated the Janus-faced nature of Iran's Islamic Revolution: a mass revolt that expressed a transrational quest for collective renewal, and a socio-political struggle for economic independence and social justice.

Chapter Five: Dissonant Institutionalization: The Imam in Power

Because the Islamic Left had helped to define the ideological terrain of the revolution, and because the radical clergy had absorbed some of its ideas, Khomeini and his allies could not completely eradicate -- nor dispense with -- the political logic of the Islamic Left. Moreover, as we shall see in the last section of this chapter, while the 1979 hostage crises may have discredited the more liberal wing of the Islamic Freedom Movement, it empowered a new generation of quasi-Marxist clerics and lay intellectuals whose social and political projects echoed 'Ali Shari'ati's unique blend of utopianism and rationalist instrumentalism.

This chapter explores this process of ideological accommodation through the prism of "dissonant institutionalization," a process by which contending visions of authority are embedded within a diverse array of official and semi-official arenas... These domains include, but are not limited to, competing ideological factions within the state, formal constitutions or other written documents, and the everyday political rhetoric of rulers. Although I address the issue of ideological factionalization in the final section of this chapter, my focus will be on analyzing the accommodation of contending visions of authority in two arenas: the Islamic Republic' 1979 Constitution, and in Khomeini's daily political discourse. As we shall see, the 1979 Constitution tried to adjust Khomeini's charismatic theory of velayat-i faqih to the traditional logic of clerical guidance and to the modern notion of popular sovereignty. Similarly, an analysis of Khomeini's speeches and edicts will show how the Imam zigzagged between a messianic notion of politics, and a more utilitarian view which called for creating political institutions and stable laws for defending the "interests"of the people.

In analyzing these more modest goal is to illustrate how a genuinely charismatic leader can evince competing ideological commitments in a remarkably open fashion...This chapter illustrates the dynamic of dissonant institutionalization during the 1979-1982 period. These were the years of Iran's grande terreur, a time of revolutionary upheaval during which the regime and its clerical vanguard gave full vent to their charismatic aspirations. Their campaign revealed itself in the quest to mobilize the people and their revolutionary committees against the domestic and foreign enemies, and in the regime's efforts to compel all social groups to demonstrate absolute obedience to the Imam. While incarnating this quest for charismatic action and total loyalty, the Imam also evinced profound ambiguity about the practical and philosophical costs of revolutionary action. Pressed by contending allegiances, Khomeini demonstrated that the road to heaven can be paved with multiple intentions.

Chapter Six: The Trials and Tribulations of Complex Routinization

The endeavor of Khomeini's disciples to enlist his support behind their respective agendas pitted radical advocates of statist development against conservative and pragmatic proponents of private enterprise. At times the two sides compromised, only to see the Council of Guardians... veto their reforms. This quintessential stand-off between traditional and rational-legal authority could not be broken without amending the Constitution in a manner that gave a clearer line of authority to one or more ruling bodies. Yet the conflict Majles-council conflict also obscured a more fundamental tension: that between the personal-charismatic authority of Khomeini, and the institutional authority of the legislative and judicial branches.

As along as Khomeini's place in the regime was secure, this conflict was not fatal. After all, Khomeini could always invoke his authority as rahbar break the stalemate between the Majles and the Council of Guardians. But in doing so he would invariably accentuate the political system's dependence on a charismatic, yet mortal, leader. Assuming that no successor could match Khomeini's exceptional stature, the constitutional procedures for selecting the next faqih would have to be changed so that his authority derived from his position or office, rather than his personal qualities. As a result, political and economic routinization were inextricably linked. Without tackling the first, little progress could be made on the second.

Khomeini's response to this double challenge illustrates the contradictory dynamics of complex routinization. On the one hand, his mystical-charismatic vision of social justice hindered his ability to articulate a clear social project and also frustrated his disciples's efforts to gain the Imam's support for their respective economic agendas. On the other hand, Khomeini's long-held desire to strengthen the ruling institutions of the state encouraged him to seek concrete solutions to the problems of social and political authority. As a result, a beguiling cycle emerged. Instead of intervening, Khomeini would encourage the Majles, Government and Council of Guardians to resolve their differences. When such cooperation failed to emerge, he would support one faction. But such intervention simply highlighted the dependence of the political system on Khomeini's personal charisma, thus hindering Khomeini's own efforts to institutionalize power. The frustrated Imam would then seek refuge in a mystical vision that was as alluring as it was ineffective.

This pattern emerged in full bloom during the Iran-Iraq war. Since Khomeini believed that the war provided a vital outlet through which Iran's young martyrs experienced mystical transcendence, he was loath to give it up. Finally, prompted by Majles Speaker 'Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and facing economic crisis, Khomeini issued his 1 January 1988 edict on the interests of the state. Eight months later he accepted a cease-fire and then backed Rafsanjani's campaign for constitutional reform. The new Constitution, promulgated within days of Khomeini's death in June 1989, not only diminished the charismatic authority of the faqih by separating the positions of marja' (or "highest religious source of imitation") and faqih; but, by still providing for the direct, popular election of the president, and the indirect selection of the faqih by a clerical assembly, it also created the potential for serious rivalry between the president and Supreme Leader.

The implications of this failure to coherently routinize authority were at first unclear. The principal concern of Khomeini's disciples was to show that supporting -- or opposing -- the above constitutional reforms was consistent with Khomeini's wishes. Thus the second facet of routinization, the struggle to reappropriate a leader's ideological legacy, began within days of Khomeini's death. Rafsanjani and his allies realized the above reforms by manipulating the utilitarian aspects of Khomeini's speeches and edicts. Yet Rafsanjani's actions, as those of his rivals, signaled only the opening he skirmish in a prolonged ideological war. Chapters Seven and Eight highlight the conflicting twists and turns that this contest took during the nineties.

Chapter Seven: Children (and One Father) of the Revolution

And so it came to pass that twelve years after the Islamic Revolution, after the many sacrifices and hardships suffered by Iran's youth, Majles Deputy Zadsar reached the staggering conclusion that the "most fateful historic event is establishing the uniform foreign exchange rate." Zadsar made this claim some months after President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Khamane'i had purged the Majles of many radicals. Determined to silence critics of a controversial economic reform program, Rafsanjani stood by as conservative clerics accused former Minister of Heavy Industries Behzad Nabavi and other radicals of undermining the revolution's Islamic principles. Stunned, Nabavi sent Rafsanjani an open letter in which he recounted his stalwart efforts to defend these values and warned that the "children of the...revolution" were being purged by the very state that they helped to create.

This chapter traces this second stage in the battle over Khomeini's's legacy and evaluates how it helped reshape the ideological contours of post-Khomeini Iran. While highlighting what Ashraf has called the "disintegrative" potential of Khomeini's charisma, I will endeavor to demonstrate that the process by which the Imam's legacy fragmented into its constituent parts was not wholly random. Indeed, if the 1991-92 purges encouraged some children of the revolution, and one father, to advance a more democratic -- even liberal -- interpretation of Khomeini's legacy, this development owed much to a utilitarian and populist logic that was a central to the Imam's dissonant ideological vision.

I begin by analyzing the rhetorical contours of Rafsanjani's traditionalization strategy. Two factors... pushed the president to adopt this strategy. First...the new Constitution did not coherently routinize authority. While it weakened the faqih's... charismatic authority by separating the posts of marja' and faqih, it strengthened the latter's traditional powers. This situation caused a dilemma: although Rafsanjani's direct election gave him a popular base.. any attempt to enhance his democratic credentials might be seen as an effort to diminish Khamane'i's authority. As a result, this constitutionally blessed arrangement created an institutional incentive for cooperation between the president and the faqih. Second, the dissonant institutionalization of conservative and radical factions in the Majles pushed Rafsanjani to back the conservatives. Because the new faqih was merely "one among equals" and lacked personal charisma to contain this conflict, the radicals felt free to assail Rafsanjani's economic reforms with abandon. These attacks antagonized conservative deputies, many of whom favored the president's reforms... Thus the president responded not by promoting greater openness, but by insisting that Khomeini's legacy required absolute loyalty to the faqih.

The radicals answered this traditionalization strategy in two ways: first, they engaged in what might be called "recharismatization." Casting the Imam as a quasi-divine figure, they held that the government's social, political and economic policies should be based solely on Khomeini's edicts, speeches, and "Last Will and Testament." Second, they invoked the Majles' constitutionally decreed authority to evaluate and criticize the action's of the executive. They held that neither Rafsanjani nor the faqih could make policy without considering the view of the Majles. These two strategies backfired by encouraging the faqih and the President to embrace each other all the more.

The subsequent purge of radical Majles deputies in the months leading up the May 1992 elections provoked a storm of protest. Suddenly, a language that had rarely been heard on the floor of the Majles now made itself heard: the language of individual rights, personal freedoms, and ideological pluralism. Although riddled with ambiguities and inconsistencies that mirrored its self-serving function...the fact that this hobbled vision of political and ideological pluralism was legitimated by invoking the Imam's legacy suggests that by 1992 the Islamic Republic was already moving in new directions.

Chapter Eight: Disenchantment, Charisma and...Reform?

In the struggle over Khomeini's legacy, every competing faction claimed the Imam for itself. If conservative Majles deputy Parvaresh could justifiably accuse the radicals of "trying to portray the Imam as solely your own," his allies on the Right also strove to monopolize Khomeini's memory. Few obeyed the Imam's final instruction, namely, that "whatever statement is, or will be, attributed to me is not acceptable unless I have said it in my own voice...or has my signature." But while the battle over Khomeini's legacy continued into the midnineties, its political significance changed. Henceforth, that contest served as a surrogate for a fundamental debate over the very nature of authority. Following the 1991-1992 purges... and ,,,campaign against "cultural onslaught," several lay thinkers and clerics began asking whether a political system based on contending notions of authority could long endure. Convinced, as Abdolkarim Soroush put it, that "all of the problems comes from the effort to combine" conflicting principles, these thinkers implied that the very survival of the Islamic Republic required pruning Khomeini's legacy of its more glaring ideological contradictions.

Yet what did this mean? Which values were in conflict and which were in sync? Which could be accommodated and which deserved discarding? And could a system based on the dissonant institutionalization of contending visions of authority be prodded in a more coherent direction without undermining its very ideological foundations? The answer to this last question was not merely theoretical: the effort to routinize Khomeini's authority could easily provoke a counterattack from conservative clerics. As with all hard-liners, they saw any reform as invitation to their demise. The challenge facing the reformers, then, was to show that the opposite was true, namely that without reform, the entire system might collapse under the weight of popular discontent

By the midnineties the growing spiritual and symbolic disenchantment of the postrevolution generation seemed to be pushing Iran in this very direction. Alienated as much by the state's dogma as by its intolerance of just plain fun, many youths either became apathetic, or they committed an even more shocking act: they turned to Western culture for inspiration! The clerics responded by intensifying their campaign against the "cultural onslaught." But such efforts only created greater disaffection. At this point the reformists stepped in. Seizing the initiative, they tried to lift the young out of their existential doldrums by recasting Khomeini's charismatic legacy in a more democratic and pluralistic light. For a second time Iran's history, disenchantment gave way to charisma.

Conservative clerics inadvertently sparked this cycle. Having prevailed in the Majles, they launched a campaign to purge other state institutions of potential reformists. In late 1992 Minister of Islamic Guidance Sayyid Mohammad Khatami was forced to resign for failing to correctly "guide" the youth. Next to go was Mohammad Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Director of the Voice and Vision Broadcasting Company. By1994, hundreds of intellectuals and supposed dissidents were in prison, and some had been executed. Yet his campaign only encouraged a new wave of reformist thinking. Among these intellectuals was Mohammad Khatami. A member of the clerical left, after his forced resignation from the Islamic Guidance Ministry he answered his critics by arguing that only way to address the challenge of Western culture was to create a tolerant vision of Islamic civilization. Abdolkarim Soroush, a lay intellectual, endorsed this thesis but went further: he argued that the creation of a rational and open Islam required distancing clerics from political power.

The hardliners held that this bid to sort out Khomeini's legacy was in fact an exhibition of disloyalty to it. Citing Khomeini's own words, Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani and his allies reduced this legacy to one simple formula: fanatical opposition to West "civilization" and the repression of all "liberals" who dared question the ultimate authority of the faqih... Thus the conservatives scorned the reformists' argument that the faqih's role as "guide" of the overall system should be accommodated to the rule of law and the authority of the Majles. While Khatami and his allies argued that this defining the faqih's authority in such transpolitical terms would enhance his stature, the conservatives feared that this was a recipe for the Islamic state's self-destruction.

Why, given the conservatives' fierce opposition to the reformists, did Khatami prevail in the May 1997 elections? His success was partly due to his rhetorical skills: by trying to show that his revisionist agenda was consonant with Khomeini's "greatest legacy...the establishment of Islamic government," Khatami diluted -- although by no means prevented -- opposition from Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamane'i. But Khatami's victory was also stemmed from the overwhelming popularity of his message. By addressing the burning desire of Iran's youth for a pluralistic, democratic and spiritually uplifting vision of the future, he galvanized the country...This said, it would be premature to conclude that Khatami's election victory made a pluralist democracy inevitable. Given the enduring institutional authority of the faqih, as well as the conservatives' capacity to mobilize supporters of the "old system," Khatami may well conclude that his political fate rests in accommodating rather than in opposing the system of contending authorities.

Conclusion: Fear and Joy

On the twentieth anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Tehran's Revolution Square hosted Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. Apparently, the young people who flocked to this event were not bothered by the spectacle of American cartoon characters celebrating the fall of the Shah. The same, however, could not be said of Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamane'i. As far as the he was concerned, the 5000 young people who joined this "Carnival of Joy" were suffering from a bad case of false consciousness. After all, he insisted several days after the event, "The young people of today can...never be fooled by the tricks and smiles of America and Zionism."

Yet while it is easy to lampoon Khamane'i's fear of joy, we would be mistaken to assume that the austere asceticism and anti-Americanism that he articulated had lost its foothold in the ideologies, institutions and ruling elite. Mohammad Khatami's experiences during the two years following his election demonstrated that he faced a tricky dilemma. On the one hand, his overwhelming victory at the polls encouraged his followers to push for an immediate opening of the political and cultural field. On the other hand, his conservative detractors seized every occasion to undermine Khatami and his allies in government, the media, and the universities. Khatami's dilemma was to respect such forces without alienating his supporters would prove a delicate task.

Khatami skillfully negotiated their countervailing pressures. In doing so, he has secured an unprecedented measure of glasnost in the cultural and intellectual fields... However, the assumption held by many "transitionologists"-- namely, that such experiments in political liberalization are inherently unstable, and thus either set the stage for a break through to competitive democracy, or provoke a counterreform from "hard-liners"-- may be wrong. Rather than move forward or back along a linear path, the system of contending authorities forged by Khomeini and re-tooled by... Rafsanjani and Khamane'i may endure in new institutional and ideological forms. This appear's to be Khatami's objective...While the February 2000 parliamentary elections, during which reformists crushed their conservative rivals, suggest that the reformists had stretched the Imam's words about as far as they would go, I will argue in the "theoretical reprise" that concludes this chapter that domestic and global realities may very well facilitate Khatami's efforts to reform, rather than eclipse, the system of contending authorities that he inherited in May 1997.


Back to Comments On Dr. Soroush